“old Catholic Church is worth more than all”

We are all familiar with young Joseph Smith’s partiality for Methodism. Joseph even conceded in his now-canonized history that he was “partial to the Methodist sect, and…felt some desire to be united with them.” This affinity for Methodism is reflected in the organization of his nascent Church. Priesthood was made up of the offices of Teacher, Priest, and Elder. Missionaries weren’t required to be educated and preached itinerantly. Even words like “General Conference” stem from early Methodism. By the end of his life though, Joseph’s perspective had changed, and there was a new tradition in which to find parallels.

After Joseph delivered his King Follette discourse at the April, 1844, general conference, apostates took the controversial principles and ran. Joseph stood up to this controversy on June 16, with his famous Sermon in the Grove. He had prepared for days and delivered a discourse on the nature of God. Then, after describing the destiny of humanity in the plan of salvation, he stated, that the “old Catholic Church is worth more than all.”

Joseph had been pejoratively compared to the Pope for years. He was the soul director of his Church. He introduced rituals and practices that offended antebellum protestant sensibilities. After making his supportive comment of Catholicism, Joseph went on to argue that all protestants were essentially Catholic apostates. Joseph then taught that God never recognizes apostates and that “any man who will betray the Catholics will betray you.” Perhaps, at this moment of Joseph’s betrayal, he felt to sympathize with what he recognized as the previous dispensation’s heir.


  1. “He was the soul director of his Church.”


  2. I wish we had more soul directors leading our ward choirs.

    Seriously, though, I’ve always liked this quote and like to trot it out in EQ or GD whenever someone brings up the Great and Abominable = Catholic idea. One time, a EQ teacher with some wit said: “well, then I guess the protestants don’t have anything ‘great’ about them—they’re just abominable.”

    Joseph did have a good relationship with the Catholic clergy in Nauvoo. I wonder if this personal contact was what developed a soft spot for the church.

  3. I like J’s reference to “the Joseph” – typo that I’m sure it is.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    I too find this quote fascinating. It’s interesting to me that Joseph’s early (negative) experiences with Christianity were basically all with fractured manifestations of Protestantism: Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Universalists, Unitarians, Quakers, Congregationalists. Joseph seems to have been strongly influenced by the Protestant fragmentation he observed first hand in the Burned-Over District, which he found abhorrent.

    Even today the Church tends to have better relations with Catholics than with Protestants.

  5. Vital point to be made, Staples. Matt and I are working on a paper exploring some of this, and I believe Matt Grow has a paper in Church History on Mormon and Catholic perceptions of each other in 19th cent. In a sense, Smith was able to say to Protestants, “I have your reason, I have your Bible, and I have Catholic authority. You have nothing.” The more I study these polemics and theological controversies, the more I realize just how potent Smith’s assault on creedal Protestantism was and understand the actually religious issues underlying early anti-Mormonism. It wasn’t all just fights over politics and resources.

  6. I have long believed that the “creeds” mentioned in JSH 1:19 were *not* the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed of the Catholic Church but rather the creeds of the Westminster Confession and others of Protestantism. IMO, that distinction makes perfect sense of the way they are described in that verse – as opposed to how the earlier Catholic Creeds might have been described had they been the intended target.

  7. Even today the Church tends to have better relations with Catholics than with Protestants.

    That tends to be my observation, at least on the personal level. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed during my various stints as ward mission leader or ward/stake missionary that Catholics tend to predominate among converts, particularly those who remain active. And, of course, the Church continues to enjoy its greatest missionary success in Latin America.

    On an official level, the Catholics don’t recognize LDS baptism as providing salvation, but since we don’t recognize theirs, that’s probably fair. :-) ..bruce..

  8. Has anyone considered the fact that the Catholic Church has weathered so many storms and attacks over the length of its existence that they have a harder time getting worked up over one more from us – unlike the Protestants, for whom we are their first viable religious threat – their version of what they were to the Catholics? They have reacted to us for the past 200 years pretty much like the Catholic Church reacted initially to them for their first 200 years. When Protestantism reached a size where it was considered a legitimate “mainstream” Christian movement, the Catholic Church backed off its former persecution – of them and, by extension, us (as just another Protestant denomination). I’m not sure when or if that will happen with Protestantism’s attitude toward us, but I think it will depend more on the tone of our own rhetoric than anything else.

    The trick, imo, is to maintain the theology and peculiarity but lose the arrogance and stridency. Even then it might not be enough, since the core conflict and repudiation of authority still would exist, but I wouldn’t care much in that situation – if our own rhetoric were consistent with our unique perspective on the Gospel but expressed more gently.

  9. A cogent comment, smb; I’m looking forward to your paper.

    When I reread Joseph’s analysis of protestants and Catholic apostates, I thought of how William Law had set up the Reformed Mormon Church.

    Kevin, I remember you making a comment once that if Joseph had been Catholic, perhaps he wouldn’t have sought after a restoration (or something to that effect).

  10. Chris Laurence says:

    It’s tough to see how or if we’ll become acceptable to protestantism. Our claim is essentially that we’re the next logical step. The Reformation, the Renaissance, the formation of the United States were all toward this end: the restoration of the true church of Jesus Christ. How we become more acceptable to protestants, I think, is to tout this claim. Since the 1960s, we’ve gotten all tangled up in being conservative (in the classical sense, not political), when really, our religion’s main selling point is liberalism (in the classical sense again). Essentially, Christ established his church at the meridian of time into rocky soil. It took all of the developments of modern civilization to create the fertile soil necessary for His church to be established correctly. I think the Catholic church can more easily dismiss this claim, whereas protestantism agrees with all of the LDS premises except the last one, that the religion we preach is the next logical step. When your religion follows a certain line of change, it is difficult to say where that line of change stops. With continuing revelation as one of our doctrines, ours doesn’t stop. They, however, have created barriers such as, to paraphrase, “The Bible is the sum total of the word of God.”

    I wonder if our preaching in the South and in Europe would succeed if we emphasized this reliance upon the Renaissance and modern Western Civilization more.

  11. Chris Laurence says:

    To clarify: I don’t think we’ll become acceptable to protestantism, but to individual protestants as converts through what I wrote.

  12. I’m not optimistic about our chances with Protestantism, frankly, for a number of theological reasons – and I really don’t feel comfortable sharing them in this forum, since they are quite blunt and it would be hard to phrase them gently. That’s the difficulty I think we face: in order to be more “acceptable” to Protestantism (as a collective body) we would have to ditch those core, Gospel principles that make us unique.

    I think what you say, Chris, makes sense for individual, open-minded Protestants (whether they accept it or not), but not to organizational Protestantism.

  13. Let’s not forget the atrocious persecution of Catholics by Protestants in early America. Evangelicals would constantly say terrible things about the Catholic church that would pass as hate speech now. The Jews, for all the persecution they suffered, would sometimes find a receptive audience among Protestants on the basis of their Christian Israelitism, but Catholics not really.

  14. Great post. I’ve had an affinity for Catholicism ever since I took a great class on the Reformation taught by Craig Harline at BYU. One his lectures compared and contrasted the attributes of Catholic and Protestant religious institutions during the tumult of the Reformation, then a searching discussion of some of the surprising parallels with Mormonism. My basic conclusion is that although in outward appearance we have quite a few of the trappings of low church Protestantism, you don’t have to get very deep before the ritual and authority look very Catholic.

  15. I’ve long felt that if for some reason I were to leave the Church that I’d most likely become Catholic. The ritual, pomp, and history have always appealed to me. If only they had the restored gospel and Priesthood authority…

  16. Christopher says:

    bfwebster (#7)-

    Your comment that “Catholics tend to predominate among [LDS] converts” needs to be qualified with an understanding that Latin American Catholicism (or Colonial Catholicism) is different than European Catholicism.

    Otherwise, using your model, Italy, Ireland, and Spain would all have large LDS populations.

  17. Thomas Parkin says:


    It seems to me that the 15 year old attempt at detente Evangelicals is fraying. (Or, maybe it is just me.) Probably Mitt Romney has a lot to do with that. It is hard to maintain the illusion that we are on the same side, some shared ‘family values’ language notwithstanding, when you are constantly being assaulted with … you know, the whole never ending viento amargo.


  18. I agree, Thomas. Without specifics, the following is as far as I feel comfortable going in such an open forum:

    I can’t tell you how uncomfortable I am that Mormonism has become linked in some people’s eyes with the Evangelical movement. If I were to post a thread about the theological implications of the the Reformation creeds, and how the slippery slope has led to Evangelicalism, it would be hard to do so without sounding over-the-top confrontational and alarmist. Let me just say that such an examination needs to be accomplished within the context of the War in Heaven to be understood fully.

    (End of rant – not to be re-visited)

  19. Ray, I’ve often thought that Evangelical Christendom’s claims that we are not Christian is to our ultimate benefit.

  20. I was aware that our church was influenced by both Catholicism and Protestantism, but I didn’t know about the quote from Joseph Smith. There’s usually a lot more Catholic bashing in the lessons on the apostasy, so I’m grateful for this nugget.

    Adding to #13, the violent iconoclasm of the European Protestants during the Reformation.

  21. Christopher Smith says:

    Matt and I are working on a paper exploring some of this


    You might want to take a look at Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. He’s got some real gems on p. 144-145 and 150-152 from mid-nineteenth century issues of La Civilta Catolica, a Catholic publication in Italy.

  22. LDS Anarchist says:

    I went from a Catholic to an LDS. The two have a lot in common. They also seem to be following the same historical patterns, unfortunately.

  23. I’m convinced that the “great and abominable church” is reality TV. More specifically, American Idol. Even the name has “idol” in it.

  24. John Turner says:

    Joseph Smith’s passing fancy for Methodism is certainly noteworthy, and I think Brigham Young was quite strongly shaped by his family’s Reformed Methodist allegiance. [Much in the way that Mormonism more broadly was shaped by the primitive evangelical culture of the day]. Certainly morally and doctrinally — Brigham’s sabbatarianism, his biblicism, and his aversion to fancy women’s dress, for instance. I find it curious, though, that the Reformed Methodists embraced visions & dreams, immediate and miraculous healings, etc.

  25. John Turner — Look out for the name Christopher Jones. He’s a grad student in the now defunct BYU masters program, working with Grant Underwood on connections between early Mormonism and Methodism. I think Chris plans to present some of his research at MHA next year.

  26. Christopher says:

    John Turner-

    Have you read Larry Porter’s article on the Young family’s transition from Reformed Methodism to Mormonism, published in the recently released A Witness for the Restoration: Essays in Honor of Robert J. Matthews?

  27. The fourth paragraph of this essay has an interesting take on how Mormonism straddles the Protestant/Catholic divide:


    The author, Francis Beckwith, comes from an interesting perspective. He is the immediate past president of the Evangelical Philosophy society who just became a Roman Catholic, generating much controversy. He was also co-editor of “The New Mormon Challenge.”

  28. Here is the paragraph in case clicking through to it is too much of a bother. The entire article is interesting though:

    “Even if one thinks that Smith was profoundly mistaken (as I do), one cannot help but marvel at the religious genius of this project: It has all the advantages of Reformation Protestantism and nineteenth-century Restorationism (“Let’s get back to what Jesus and the apostles originally taught”) with all the advantages of Catholicism and Orthodoxy—an apostolic magisterium within the confines of a visible church. Smith has both a priesthood of all believers and a priesthood managed by a church hierarchy. He offers a new gospel unconstrained by centuries of theological precedent, yet it he could claim that it is as old as the apostles. He could, without contradiction, reject tradition while claiming to be the true guardian of an ancient message. It may be wrong, but it was brilliant.”

  29. Thanks, JWL. That is an amazing quote.

  30. It may be wrong, but it was brilliant.

    Or, it may not be wrong.

  31. Christopher says:

    We are all familiar with young Joseph Smith’s partiality for Methodism. … By the end of his life though, Joseph’s perspective had changed, and there was a new tradition in which to find parallels.

    There is evidence that well into the Nauvoo period of the Church, Joseph was still drawing parallels with Methodism. Peter Cartwright, a Methodist minister who visited JS in Nauvoo, recorded that “[Smith] believed that among all the Churches in the world the Methodists was the nearest right” and that JS told him “We Latter-day Saints are Methodists, as far as they have gone, only have advanced further.” (Autobiography of Peter Cartwright, 342).


  1. […] First: What can we say?  When Joseph Smith was right, he was right.  […]

  2. […] church.  It is also perhaps telling that this was published in the 1840s, suggesting that despite some evidence to the contrary, Methodist practices and beliefs continued to influence Mormon thought until near the end of […]

  3. […] church.  It is also perhaps telling that this was published in the 1840s, suggesting that despite some evidence to the contrary, Methodist practices and beliefs continued to influence Mormon thought until near the end of […]

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